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From The Rational Optimist, p. 182:


Empires, indeed governments generally, tend to be good things at first and bad things the longer they last. First they improve society's ability to flourish by providing central services and removing impediments to trade and specialisation; thus, even Genghis Khan's Pax Mongolica lubricated Asia's overland trade by exterminating brigands along the Silk Road...But...governments gradually employ more and more ambitious elites who capture a greater and greater share of the society's income by interfering more and more in people's lives as they give themselves more and more rules to enforce, until they kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. There is a lesson for today.

For me, those sentences are the crux of his book--Matt Ridley standing on one foot as it were. Basically anything that expands trade is good. Anything that moves in the direction of self-sufficiency is bad. Governments, like all monopolies, eventually stagnate and impede progress.

Once again, the implication is that our current elites are 180 degrees wrong. They are promoting precisely the sort of top-down organization of society that in the past has stifled trade and impeded progress. How to turn this around? One approach is to try to re-educate the elites (call this the Liberaltarian project). One approach is to try to overthrow them (call this the Tea Party project). A third approach is to try to escape them.

I think that escapist projects, such as seasteading, suffer from the drawback that they make it more difficult for you to interact with everyone else. Ridley's whole point is that trade and sharing of ideas are the key to prosperity. As a result, I think that escapism has to work very rapidly on a very large scale if it is to work at all.

Previous posts on Ridley's book are here and here.



COMMENTS (10 to date)
david writes:

Good thing we have peaceful exchanges of governing power nowadays, aye?

Regardless... that theory would imply that elites would seek to capture income rather than prohibit it - we should be seeing substantially more sin taxes rather than fines, so to speak. This doesn't seem to be the case. Why not?

More broadly, it is hard to see how the regulatory narrative presented in the quote even makes sense in the pre-regulatory pre-modern era. If anything killed the Pax Mongolica, it was excessive decentralization of power among the Khanates, not the center extracting too much rent.

fundamentalist writes:

The assumption seems to be that the elites are separate from the majority, out of touch and rogue. I disagree. I think they reflect the will of the majority. It would be nice to think that the problem is merely a rogue group of elites. It could be solved by replacing or educating them. But if the real problem lies with the people who elect the elites, we have a much bigger problem that will be much more difficult to solve.

I have very thin logic and evidence to support it, but my gut feeling is that free markets as we knew them over the past two centuries were a flash in the pan. The were based on a unique time in history in which Protestant ideas on freedom and property reigned in a few countries. Those ideas never spread much beyond the Anglo world and where they did they were an inch deep and easily dried up by the sun. We will not see their revival for a very long time, if at all, because of the decline of traditional Christianity in the West. Without the moral backing that traditional Christianity provided, most people naturally gravitate to one of the flavors of socialism.

Isegoria writes:

Ridley is making the same point Ibn Khaldun made seven centuries ago.

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

While I am not familiar with seasteading, I would like to elaborate on your points about escapism. Paradoxically, even though people want and need to be free to produce and consume what they want, at the same time all of this production and consumption needs to be formally recorded. Why? Think of it this way. Say a community has reached a high level of economic activity but it is not integrated to the point where individual members are actually aware that this has even happened. This being the case, the economic structures are not easy to maintain because who really knows what has been accomplished? What is there to emulate and continue when following generations do not know what their elders have been able to create, especially if it is completely hidden away.

Snorri Godhi writes:

David:
If anything killed the Pax Mongolica, it was excessive decentralization of power among the Khanates

Not according to Jack Weatherford (Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World): due to cross-holdings, the Khanates had an interest in keeping trade flowing even when they were at war with each other. Weatherford blames the Black Death. Today, contagion is more likely to be financial in nature.

Isegoria:
Ridley is making the same point Ibn Khaldun made seven centuries ago.

There is a vague intuition of it even in Plato and Aristotle, I believe. More recently, the idea was encapsulated very neatly in Parkinson's Law. See also Trevor-Roper's essay: The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century, which I happen to be re-reading right now.

Matt C writes:

> Anything that moves in the direction of self-sufficiency is bad.

You probably had something different in mind, but this to me implies an end point of a one-world government, with nearly everyone living in one of a few giant super-metropolises, and the default occupation being some super-specialized niche of the Microsoft Excel Army.

No thank you.

ERIC writes:

It could be that the nature of being human does not allow for governments to go in "reverse" and it's thus impossible to "turn around". Perhaps the only way for things to change is for a new leadership to emerge that doesn't have the interests so entrenched. Is this the "natural order" of things?

Most of the postings here strike me as pretty airy-fairy. Too many intellectuals bemoan the way in which elites wield power in our society to serve their interests. They imagine this can somehow be done away with by some sort of "reforms" under which everybody in society will be equally empowered. The reality is that in ANY kind of society, with any kind of economic system, there will be people with more assets, resources and power than others, and those people will exert greater influence. The would-be reformers who don't seem to "get" this always want to avoid the reality by, ultimately, giving more power to government, supposedly acting in the general interest. But governments, made up of individual human beings, with their own interests, of course present the same problem of some people having more clout than others. The best we can do is to try to at least keep power as widely dispersed as possible, and avoid its concentration. All remedies that increase concentration of power should be viewed with great skepticism.

Mark Bahner writes:

"I think that escapist projects, such as seasteading, suffer from the drawback that they make it more difficult for you to interact with everyone else."

It's far easier to escape to other countries than it was in old times. And it's getting easier to escape to other countries every year.

For example, how many of the Pilgrims ever got to see any of their families in Europe again? Today, it's less than 12-hour plane ride. And Internet telephony allows essentially limitless voice (and even video) communication.

Likewise, a significant portion of my retirement investments are in Asian mutual funds. That wasn't possible even 20-30 years ago...let alone 50+ years ago.

Finally, on-the-fly translation machines are (finally) becoming available, such that different languages in other countries will very soon be a an insignificant barrier. (If only we'd had GPS when my family was traveling in Europe in the 1970s. Then there wouldn't even have been the need to ask for directions.)

Patri Friedman writes:

I think that escapist projects, such as seasteading, suffer from the drawback that they make it more difficult for you to interact with everyone else.

While cost of interaction is certainly a big issue that we want to minimize, I think you are overestimating those costs. The current plan is to start off something like 12 - 30 miles from a city. That's a 1-2 hour commute in a boat. Interaction is more difficult than a city or suburb, certainly, but it's on the scale of rural areas, not the remote Amazon or Andes or Himalayas or whatever.

Anyway, it's definitely a drawback, but it's not a killer and it's not like anyone else has a reasonable plan with less drawbacks :).

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